Rochester’s ‘oldies’ lost and displaced
It’s a brisk morning in the central Victorian town of Rochester and a dozen retirees pull up outside a local cafe.
One is given permission to block an entryway out front to make life easier for her 93-year-old passenger.
Warm hugs and reunions fill the street. Almost instantly the stress of insurance claims and any anxieties about their disrupted lives are forgotten.
The last seven months have been hell for around 90 percent of Rochester’s community who were inundated when the Campaspe River burst its banks last October.
None more so than for the town’s oldest, who, within hours lost their homes and one another.
Rochester Community House flood recovery coordinator Tanya McDermott has seen the heartache.
“I would say, hands down, the most gut wrenching, and most difficult to keep a degree of separation from is the older people,” she says.
McDermott was on the ground at the relief centre in the days after the water hit, and ongoing as she supports recovery in a town that she believes will “never ever be the same again”.
“Things that 'normal' people have found difficult, for an older person, it's just completely and utterly overwhelming.”
Rochester is home to an ageing demographic. It recorded a population of 3,154 in the 2021 census, with about 55 percent of residents over the age of 50.
Barb Kestle, 85, and her husband, have called the town home for more than three decades.
She stands in her shed on Dawson Street, behind her house which is gutted and waiting for a decision by an insurance company, overwhelmed by the towers of boxes that surround her.
Each one contains a part of her life - a memory. And many, like an envelope full of photos she pulls from the top of one box, have been destroyed by water damage.
“You just don’t know where to start,” she says.
But for someone who loves a cuppa and a chat, the complete loss of connection with friends has been the heaviest of blows.
“We used to sit on the front verandah every morning for morning tea and talk to the people walking past,” Barb says. “We miss that terribly.”
She now finds herself living with her daughter.
Rochester’s oldest generation have been scattered across the district, from Elmore to Kyabram, Bendigo to Echuca.
Staying with friends, family, at different aged care homes or in caravans, and left with little way to connect.
Most don’t have social media and many didn’t have mobile phones when the water arrived.
“The worst part is not knowing where all our friends are. We'd be driving around looking for people and of course, the houses are empty, ” says Barb.
There have been instances where displaced locals have driven into town in the hope of running into friends just so they have someone to talk to.
It’s stories like this, and Barb’s own longing for connection, that initiated the establishment of monthly coffee catch-ups for her Anglican Church congregation.
Ringing those she could and spreading dates by word of mouth, it is now a highlight for those who attend.
They greet each other in front of Cafe Rochester, order a hot drink and sit down to discuss the latest family drama, their next operation and how they’re too scared to set foot on scales. Generic conversations you would expect from those in their senior years.
But it doesn’t take long for the traumatic events of recent months to enter the conversation. Revealing a community gripped by tragedy.
One of the oldest in attendance, Isabel Andrew, has just been told her antique furniture - some of which dates back to the 1850s - will need to go due to water damage. The group falls silent. “Oh, Isabel,” one sighs.
The flood has been the final straw for the 93-year-old's independence and the loss of her furniture feels like another part of her life has been thrown away.
It’s not the first time water has lapped at the doors of Rochester homes. About 80 percent of properties were affected by the 2011 flood which was said to be a one-in-100-year event.
Last October, just 12 years on, water levels exceeded previous devastation and tragically took the life of 71-year-old resident Kevin Wills, who was found dead in his backyard.
Clinical psychologist Dr Rob Gordon has specialised in disaster recovery since Ash Wednesday in 1983. He says those in Rochester are still in the early stages of recovery where they are trying to come to grips with their new reality.
“The distress of the flood, particularly in Rochester, was very sudden and quite violent. And that's the traumatic element."
Dr Gordon was the expert for person-centred support following the Port Arthur Massacre, the Bali Bombings and was on the ground following the World Trade Centre attacks in 2001.
His person-centred, trauma-informed approach has shaped the way organisations such as the Australian Red Cross and government agencies work with traumatised communities.
“I find that the most important time is often between about six months and 18 months. That's often when people will be so focused on their problems that they will neglect everything else in their life.”
In that sense, Dr Gordon says the worst is yet to come.
“(Older people) are not as flexible so they have trouble rethinking the pattern of their lives.”
A hidden burden for the aged has been the pressure of navigating insurance company requirements that tend to rely on modern means of communication.
Sue Jackel, 78, says if companies could “see and walk in our shoes” they might have a better understanding of how to work with the older generation.
She has hit numerous brick walls when attempting to organise documentation for her insurer and struggled to get her company to understand the added difficulties for the older generation.
“My blood pressure is always high, but it just doesn't want to go down,” Sue says.
“But for everybody in this town, it's been an absolutely traumatic time.”
The Rochester Community House has been working to assist those suffering similar difficulties in an attempt to alleviate stress.
Tanya’s role in particular has been created to focus on gathering an extensive resource list so they can triage individual needs, connecting people to the right supports.
“Older people really rely on having a face to talk to and someone that they can actually sit down and work through things with sometimes over a period of time,” she says.
The House’s efforts have been as simple as distributing heaters, blankets, doonas, hot water bottles, beanies and hand knitted goods to ensure the residents have warmth.
It’s community centred support like this, and the organisation of events that will be integral to the town’s recovery, says Dr Rob.
“Older people have got a lot of life experience and they've been through a lot of problems before. So there's often something resilient about them in that they are more confident that life will go on,” he says.
A return to normal is hard for any of Rochester’s oldest to even begin to imagine. Most are having to see their home’s skeleton weather the elements while they wait for a final decision on its future from an insurer.
And when that news comes, they say it’s like flipping a coin. One side will signal relief for some,
while the other could be yet another kick in the stomach.
“We've been together as a group for so many years and it’s hard. I never thought the flood would do the damage it has done,” 92-year-old resident Kathleen Budd says.
She hadn't seen her friends for seven months before today’s catch-up.
“I don't want to not be here, but there's a lot of ups and downs.”
Every resident sitting around the table in Cafe Rochester feels certain their small country town will never return to normal. No matter how much support is thrown its way.
The Community House is of a similar opinion, as they watch those who went through the 2011 flood say they simply can't do it again and leave town for good.
It’s highlighted in the aged care environment where the trauma takes a toll on residents and
they lose the capacity to care for themselves, they deteriorate, and never make their way back
to their properties, Tanya says.
“Rochester as it was will never ever be the same again, that's the reality.”
But what will remain is the resilience of Rochester’s ‘oldies’ who are as tough as they come.